Kindergarteners chattered around teacher Cindy Robinson, eager to show her their carefully written phrases or ask questions. Most of her students at Central Elementary came to her class unable to read or write in English; some couldn’t ask to go to the bathroom. Their earliest papers show little or no writing, only pictures and an occasional scrawl.
But after a year in Robinson’s small class, Theresa Nguyen showed off her poem about stars and gabbed happily about the guppies and snails in tiny terrariums around the room. Another cracked open a book to show a visitor. Eighty-five percent of the kindergarteners scored high in literacy on school district tests this spring — a number that Principal Cindy Marten said was previously unheard of for Central. It is an aging City Heights school overlooking Interstate 15 that has more poor students and more English learners than almost any other San Diego Unified school, where one student stopped Marten on Wednesday near the playground to tell her excitedly that his teenage sister had just finished her first year of sobriety.
Central staffers credit its gains to a controversial plan, started just a year ago, that whittled down class sizes for the youngest children to just 15 students per teacher in 29 schools, some of which also kept children in the same groups from year to year. It was meant to be a pilot program to study whether the small classes impacted test scores.
Those tiny classes were one of the first programs eliminated by the school board to save $8.1 million, crucial money for a school district grappling with an $80 million deficit for the coming school year, and schools began planning for bigger classes and smaller staffs.
Now talk is in the air of saving the program at some schools using stimulus dollars. But no decisions have been made, and schools such as Central are left in staffing limbo, uneasily waiting to learn of their fate.
“I’m afraid this will get lost,” Robinson said. “If we don’t continue this, it was a waste.”